This article was written by Brian McKenna
Esteban Bellán was a pioneer. In 1871, the half-Irish Cuban became the first Latin-born player in a top professional league. Bellán, a pro since 1868, played for the Troy Haymakers in the National Association, which predated the familiar National League. He continued with Troy and the New York Mutuals through 1873.
After that season, he then returned home and helped build the game in Cuba. He wasn’t the first to introduce baseball there; other Cuban players were also trained in America, one or two predating Bellán’s return to the island, and American sailors had been playing on Cuban soil since at least 1866. Yet as player-manager of the leading team in the country, the Habana club, Bellán played an integral role in warming the native people to the sport that would eventually consume the nation.
Bellán was nicknamed the “Cuban Sylph” for his graceful play in the infield. During the barehanded era, he had sure hands and stopped the hardest-hit balls. As the Troy Daily Whig put it, “Steve has courage and activity, laces the hottest liners [and] grounders and [is] an accurate thrower to the bases.” Despite the latter compliment, game recaps throughout his brief career in the United States remarked more than a few times on his erratic throwing. Bellán was also quick, known to be the fastest on the bases among his teammates.
Esteban B. Bellán was born in Havana, Cuba on October 1, 1849, according to his U.S. passport application in 1874. His father, whose name remains unknown, was apparently a wealthy native; his mother, Hart Bellán, was born in Ireland circa 1820. In 1863, at age 13, Bellán and his older brother Domingo left Cuba during the political turmoil as the country sought its independence from Spain. At the time, some wealthier Cuban families sent their children north to study during the tense time on the island.
In the fall, Esteban enrolled in the preparatory department at St. John’s College in the Bronx, New York City. St. John’s, a Jesuit school, was the first Catholic institution of higher learning in the northeastern United States. It was founded in 1841 on the land formerly known as Rose Hill Manor in Fordham in the Bronx. Today, the location is known as the Rose Hill Campus of Fordham University.
Ten other Latin students were similarly enrolled in 1863. One was Domingo Bellán, about four years older, who enrolled a few months earlier in September (presumably at a higher level). Esteban entered the institution’s lowest level of schooling, essentially beginning high school. His area of focus was English grammar. According to the St. John’s Registry, he began there in December 1863.
Although the available papers show Domingo only during that first school year, Esteban remained through July 1868 at age 18. The brothers may have been accompanied at the time by their mother and older sister, whose name was shown in the 1870 U.S. census as Rossa. All four were listed as living in Troy in Rensselaer County, New York. Presumably, the patriarch of the family remained in Cuba.
St. John’s fielded its first baseball team, known as the Rose Hills, in September 1859. They are known for participating in the first collegiate baseball game played with nine men per side on November 3 that year versus St. Francis Xavier College, another Jesuit school. Fordham won that day 33-11. Actually, St. Francis was a college preparatory high school located in Manhattan. The actual St. Francis Xavier College was located in Nova Scotia.
Steve Bellán, 5’6” and 154 pounds, joined the varsity baseball club at St. John’s by age 16 in 1866, playing on the top college nine through the 1868 season. Whether he was exposed to baseball and/or played it prior to coming to the United States seems unlikely, at least not to any meaningful extent. Available knowledge dates the introduction of the game in Cuba at 1866, over two years after his relocation to New York.
Rose Hill box scores are scarce during the era but one appeared in the New York Times following the June 18, 1868 home game versus the Actives of New York City, an amateur member of the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP). The Actives were no slouch; they would defeat the impressive Mutuals of New York and Unions of Morrisania that season. Bellán led off and caught, placing four hits and scoring twice during the 36-34 victory. According to the Times, “The Actives went up to the college feeling pretty sure of success, having a strong nine with them, but they were met on the field by as plucky, active and efficient corps of players as we have seen play in a match out of town this season.” One of the earliest greats of the game, George Wright, performed the umpiring duties. Two other men with Latin names, Christodoro in left field and Esendoro in right, were also in the Rose Hill lineup.
Eleven days later on the 29th, the Brooklyn Eagle announced that Bellán and Christodoro (more likely Cristodoro or Cristadoro) left the college nine and joined the Unions of Morrisania, also a Bronx-based club. The Morrisanias were the reigning champions of the NABBP. The team’s star happened to be middle infielder George Wright, giving a strong indication that Wright was at least in part responsible for bringing Bellán on board and helping launch his pro career. It’s not clear if Christodoro played for the Morrisanias. Rose Hill’s second baseman H. Madden joined the Athletics of Brooklyn at the beginning of July.
It’s interesting to note that in 1867 the NABBP formally barred black clubs after the Pythians of Philadelphia applied for admission. The reasoning: “If colored clubs were admitted, there would be in all probability some division of feeling, whereas, by excluding them no injury could result to anyone.” At the time, the NABBP was courting southern teams and the admission of clubs with African-American players was contradictory to this objective. In 1868, however, Bellán, a brown-eyed Latin, was included seemingly without a ripple. It helped that his complexion was on the lighter side, being the product of an Irish mother.
Bellán wasn’t the only Latin player in the NABBP in 1868, even if Cristodoro didn’t make the lineup. Rafael Julián de la Rua, another St. John’s student, played 12 games as a pitcher for the Unions of Lansingburgh, based near Troy, New York. Rua, nearly two years older than Bellán, hailed from Matanzas, Cuba, attending St. John’s from 1864 to 1867. Rua started the season with Lansingburgh and thus appeared in a NABBP lineup before Bellán, as the latter was tied up with his college nine into late June.
The Morrisanias took off on a western tour at the end of July 1868. The club won their first 29 games that season and were 17-1 during their month-long western stint, which included stops in Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Rockford, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Louisville, Cincinnati, among other cities. In Rockford, they defeated Al Spalding (not yet 18 years old) 23-17. The reigning champs’ first loss came on August 25 to the Red Stockings of Cincinnati, 13-12. This squad was revamped by George Wright’s brother Harry and would emerge as a fully acknowledged professional team the following season, transforming the game.
In total Bellán appeared in 20 games for Morrisania at second base and in the outfield. Morrisania posted a 37-6 record in NABBP competition, as the Mutuals of New York took the championship.
Bellán joined the Unions of Lansingburgh in 1869. Lansingburgh emerged after the Civil War in 1866 with several members of prewar clubs, the Priams of Troy, Nationals of Lansingburgh, and Unions of Rensselaer County. The new club joined the NABBP and became one of the strongest clubs in the area, winning 90% of their contests in their first five seasons. They were officially called the “Unions” — however, after defeating the powerful Mutuals of New York, the team became fondly known in New York papers as the “Haymakers.” The nickname supposedly derived from one of the Mutual players who popped off after the loss about losing to a bunch of haymakers, a derisive term for country boys.
Lansingburgh was located in Rensselaer County in eastern New York State just outside the city of Troy on the Hudson River near Albany and Schenectady. Lansingburgh became familiarly known as North Troy; in fact, it was officially annexed by the city in 1900.
In 1869, the NABBP essentially split as it formally permitted openly professional clubs for the first time. Lansingburgh was among the first to officially declare itself as a professional nine. Bellán appeared in 30 of the Haymakers’ games, mainly at third base. The club finished with a 24-9-1 record in NABBP competition. Also with the club was Bill Craver, a familiar name to many because of his tie to a future game-fixing scandal in the National League. Lansingburgh took part in several interesting games that season, including a tie with the Atlantics of Brooklyn, a one-run defeat of the Mutuals of New York, and two single-run losses on the road to the Pastimes of Baltimore and Athletics of Philadelphia.
In Cincinnati on August 26, Lansingburgh took on the famed Red Stockings of that city, the game’s first acknowledged all-professional club. The Reds posted a 57-0 record in 1869 — but the Haymakers dirtied that record a little. The teams were tied 17-17 entering the sixth inning when Troy president James McKeon pulled his club off the field in a dispute after an umpire’s call, essentially forfeiting. It was the only non-win — on the field of play — that Cincinnati suffered. Bellán manned third base that day.
With Lansingburgh in 1870, Bellán appeared in 40 games, again mostly at the hot corner. The New York Clipper summed up his skills at the position, calling Bellán “an efficient and faithful guardian [of the sack]” and “one of the pluckiest of base players.” The team finished with a 30-15-1 record, including two narrow victories over the Atlantics of Brooklyn and the Forest Cities of Rockford, Illinois and a 10-10 tie with the pesky Mutuals.
At the end of 1870, the NABBP was in turmoil as internal factions, torn between amateurism and professionalism, fractured the organization. It collapsed and the National Association, the sport’s first professional league, took hold with nine clubs in major eastern and western cities. The Troy Haymakers joined the league, as one of the less populated cities.
The 1871 Haymakers fielded one of the top hitting lineups in the association, including Craver, Lip Pike, Clipper Flynn, Steve King, and Dickie Flowers. Bellán, manning third, hit a so-so .250 in all 29 of the team’s games. He did pound the ball on August 3, however — going 5-for-5 with five RBIs, a triple, and a stolen base against Boston’s Harry Wright and Al Spalding to carry the Haymakers to a 13-12 victory. Over the course of the season, though, Troy’s pitching was woeful. John McMullin led the league in hits allowed, base on balls, runs and earned runs. Overall, they finished in sixth place with a 13-15 record.
Troy completely revamped its lineup in 1872, a symptom of two of the prevailing ills of the sport at the time — contract jumping and tampering. Only Bellán and King returned among the 1871 regulars. Jimmy Wood from Chicago was hired as captain. George Zettelin, Wood, Charlie Hodes and Bub McAtee were added from the Chicago White Stockings as that team dropped out of the league. Phonney Martin and Count Gedney were brought in from the Brooklyn Eckfords. Likewise, Washington Olympics players Doug Allison and Candy Nelson joined the Haymakers.
The team again hit well and Zettelin performed much better than McMullin. Unfortunately, the Haymakers went bankrupt and dissolved on July 23. As the Brooklyn Eagle colorfully described, “The Troy club is no more. It commenced with a flourish and has gone out like an exploded sky rocket. The directors disbanded the members on the 23rd.” In truth, 1872 proved too much financially for most of the clubs. Only four teams – Boston, Baltimore, New York and Philadelphia – competed in over 40 games. Brooklyn and Washington, D.C. shot themselves in the foot by fielding two clubs each; though, the Brooklyn teams completed the season after joining the league in May. The Washington teams collapsed long before midseason.
Troy finished with a decent .600 winning percentage, 15-10. Bellán was used in a utility role, splitting his time between shortstop, third base and center field. In 23 games he hit .263. Allison, Gedney, Zettelin, Martin, Nelson and Wood all joined the Eckfords. Bellán, King, and McAtee remained in Troy and formed the nucleus of a new club that competed as an independent. The lineup was filled out with some members of the Putnam club of Brooklyn.
Into April 1873, efforts were made in Troy to field another top-flight team. Bellán was among those in the endeavor. However, it didn’t pan out and he joined the New York Mutuals in mid-May for eight games, mainly as a third baseman. June 9, a 22-3 loss to the Philadelphia Athletics, marked his final game.
In January 1874, Bellán gained naturalization as a United States citizen and received a passport in his hometown of Troy. He then permanently returned to Cuba, though the St. Louis Globe Democrat, via a wire report, declared that he was expected to return to Troy for a visit in 1880.
Bellán was not the only Cuban-born, American-trained ballplayer to return to the island. Nemesio and Ernesto Guillo studied at Springhill College in Mobile, Alabama. They returned to Cuba in 1864 just about the time Bellán was beginning at St. John’s. Also, Emilio Sabourín attended a business college in Washington, D.C. These men, with several others, were the pioneers of baseball in Cuba.
Baseball was played in Cuba by 1866, initially brought to the island by American sailors. On October 1, 1868, it was outlawed by the colonial head of the country, Francisco de Lersundi, as an “anti-Spanish game with insurrection tendencies, opposed to the language and favored the lack of affection to Spain.” At the end of 1874, Bellán participated in the first formal, organized contest in Cuba. On December 27, a team from Havana visited Palmar de Junco Field in Matanzas. According to Havana El Artista, Havana, fortified by pitcher Ricardo Mora and catcher Bellán, routed Matanzas 51-9. Bellán, not known as a power hitter, clocked three home runs and scored seven times. Sabourín scored another eight runs for Havana. In 1877, the first game pitting Americans versus Cubans also took place at Matanzas’s Palmar de Junco Field.
The Cuban League was established at the end of 1878. Bellán caught for and managed the Habana team through the 1885-1886 season. During the league’s early era, only a few games were played per season, on Sundays and holidays. The first season, 1878-1879, ran from December 29 to February 16 and included three clubs, Habana, Almendares and Matanzas. In the first ever league game Habana defeated Almendares 21-20 after scoring eight runs in the eighth inning. Habana, under captain Bellán, took the pennant with a 4-0-1 record.
The 1879-1880 season, which ran from November 11 to March 7, was a contentious one. The Colón club brought in two players from the Syracuse National League team, Jimmy Macullar and Hick Carpenter, under assumed names, George McCullar and Urban Carpenter. On November 23, Macullar struck out 21 Habana batters and hit the league’s first home run, sparking a strong protest that ultimately ended with Colón’s withdrawal from the league on January 11.
In December, the first American professional team visited Cuba, playing its first game on the island in Havana on December 21. The Americans were led by Frank Bancroft. The group was composed mainly of members of the soon-to-be Worcester, Massachusetts National League club, which was ascending to the majors from the minor National Association, where it had played in 1879. Financially, the trip was a failure and the group returned to New Orleans on the 31st. They may have played as few as two games on the island.
Habana finished the 1879-1880 season with a 5-2 record, good for another pennant. In fact, Habana won the first five official Cuban League championships. A feud between Habana and Almendares prevented the undertaking of the 1880-1881 season. No league games were played again until January 2, 1882 and even then the league collapsed after only four games due to disputes. Fe led the league with a 3-1 record; Habana was 1-3. All contests were declared void by league officials.
Habana took the pennant again in 1882-1883 with a 5-1 record. Almendares posted the same record but Habana was declared the champion when Almendares withdrew from the league. The 1883-1884 season never got underway and Bellán did not play or manage during the 1884-1885 season. He returned for 1885-1886 to help Habana take their fifth consecutive title, with a 6-0 record. In the five seasons under captain Bellán, Habana posted a 21-6-1 record, counting the voided season, and four league championships.
Bellán’s life after baseball seems to be a mystery. He apparently lost contact with his friends from the game and wasn’t mentioned by them in a newspaper article from 1911 as one of the living pioneers of the game in Cuba. Esteban Bellán died on August 8, 1932 in Havana at age 82. A statue was erected in his honor in Havana; it was spied by American ballplayers during a barnstorming tour in 1911.
An updated version of this biography appeared in “Cuban Baseball Legends: Baseball’s Alternative Universe” (SABR, 2016), edited by Peter C. Bjarkman and Bill Nowlin.
Bellán’s passport application notes his height as 5’8”. The reference sites list 5’6”.
Some references cite Bellán’s middle name as Enrique but the St. John’s Register, his passport application and naturalization papers indicate a middle initial of “B,” no middle name listed.
A “Stephen Bellan” is listed in the New York Times on September 19, 1867, arriving in the city aboard the ship Morro Castle from Havana. This might suggest that he or his family periodically returned to Cuba during their stay in the United States. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to positively identify any of them in ship manifests. The manifest of that ship that day shows a “S. Bellan,” 39 years old, working as a merchant. Unless there’s an error in the listing, it is not the baseball Stephen Bellán. It may warrant further inspection though.
Roberto González Echevarría in The Pride of Havana notes that Bellán and others founded the Habana club in 1868. However, it seems more likely that 1878 was the date.
Bjarkman, Peter C. Diamonds Around the Globe: The Encyclopedia of International Baseball (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2005).
Boston Daily Advertiser, 1873
Brooklyn Eagle, 1868, 1872
Brown, Bruce, “Cuban Baseball,” Atlantic Monthly, June 1984: 109-114.
Burgos Jr., Adrian. Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2007).
Chicago Tribune, 1872
Echevarría, Roberto González. The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
Figueredo, Jorge S. Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History, 1878-1961 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 2003).
Gary Ashwill’s Agate Type website
Gomez, Cesar Gonzalez, Origenesdelbeisbol.com, page 22
New York Clipper, 1870, 1879
New York Times, 1867-1872
Regalado, Samuel Octavio. Viva Baseball: Latin Major Leaguers and their Special Hunger (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998).
Sporting Life, 1911
St. Louis Globe Democrat, 1879-1880
Tiemann, Robert L. and Mark Rucker. Nineteenth Century Stars (Cleveland: Society for American Baseball Research, 1989).
Troy Daily Whig, New York, 1871
Wright, Marshall D. The National Association of Base Ball Players, 1857-1870 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2000).